Time-Out Review: Tramp by Sharon Van Etten

(Every once in a while, CK takes a time out from counting down old songs to concentrate on a new release.)

I had originally intended to use my Time-Out review this week on Paul McCartney’s new album, Kisses On The Bottom, which is a pleasant, lightly jazzy collection of standards that wisely stays out of Rod Stewart Hamsville territory. As a Beatlemaniac, I felt it was my duty. But I’ve spent much of the past week listening instead to this captivating album by a singer about which I’d frankly never heard anything before.

So I think even Macca himself would approve. After all, nothing I say will likely change your mind about whether an album of standards is your cup of tea or not. But Sharon Van Etten just might be as new to you as she was to me, so I feel I’m performing a greater service by raving over her new album Tramp.

Maybe you already know Van Etten from her previous two albums. The Brooklyn-based chanteuse is now moving with some fast friends from the indie music world, chief among them The National’s Aaron Dessner, who produces Tramp. I haven’t heard the previous two albums (I plan to now,) but this album feels like the culmination of a steady upward climb for a major songwriting talent.

Van Etten tends to focus solely on relationships on the album, which is fine when she gives you so many different takes on the subject. Dessner works hard to make sure the backing sounds fresh with each cut, whether things are gritty and propulsive ( like “Warsaw” or “Serpents,”) or stark and atmospheric (like “Joke Or A Lie” or “Kevin’s.”)

Of course, none of the various approaches would work without a strong set of songs on which to hang them, and Van Etten has that department all sewn up. Whether she’s dressing down her lover in “Serpents” or apologizing for her own faults in “Leonard” (“I’m bad at loving you,”) she has a knack for getting both sides of the story, rendering her material with welcome depth and complexity.

She also has a unique, elongated delivery that keeps listeners hanging on each word waiting for the payoff that inevitably comes. Her voice is strong enough that it can compensate often when the lyrics fail to get the adequately mood across, although those occasions are rare.

There are several standouts to be found, including the stunning “All I Can,” which shows Van Etten vulnerable from a broken relationship but still with enough spine to speak up. The music insistently builds until the singer powerfully belts out her words to stand out above the cacophony. On “I’m Wrong,” she’s asking for lies from her reticent lover because the truth is too hard to bear:  “Tell me I’m wrong/Tell me it hasn’t been that long.”

Tramp is a bit of a misleading title, suggesting a showy brazenness to the material that isn’t evident. In truth, the songs are much subtler than that, provoking their emotions from a sly turn of phrase here and a quiver in the voice there. The final line of album closing “Joke Or A Lie,” delivered by Van Etten over spare guitar strums and some ethereal squalls of sound, is a heartbreaker that hints at a sad finality:  “Believe me I tried.”

In relationships, trying might not always be enough to overcome human frailty and external pressures. Sharon Van Etten seems to have learned all these hard truths, and she delivers them back to her audience in a way that never feels forced or predictable. If Tramp makes the impact it deserves, I just might have reviewed some standards this week after all.  RATING:  8.8 (out of 10)


Time-Out Review: Old Ideas by Leonard Cohen

(Every once in a while, CK takes a time out from counting down old songs to concentrate on a new release.)

There is refreshing humility and honesty embedded in the title of Leonard Cohen’s newest album. After all, the content of Old Ideas, Cohen’s 12th solo LP and first since 2004’s Dear Heather, is no different from the stuff he’s been talking about for the last 45 years in his music, and even further back from that in his poetry.

The mysteries are intact and unsolvable: How do you reconcile love with desire, and how do you reconcile both of those with the idea of a higher power? How do you live life to the fullest when you’re faced with the knowledge of certain death?  Is there any such thing as the truth, or is it just a perversion of the overarching lie? Much like there are only so many notes on the piano, Cohen’s position is that these topics are always what will interest and confound us the most, no matter the prevalent current events of the day.

In no way does that mean Old Ideas is derivative or stale. As a matter of fact, this is Cohen at the top of his game, as wry and clever as ever even as the conundrums he faces get increasingly profound. His nimble wordplay is more colloquial than in the past, and yet it is assembled in such a way as to remain endlessly insightful. In short, they don’t write ’em like this anymore.

Old Ideas starts off with “Going Home.” In the verses, Cohen tales the role of God, who admonishes Leonard, a “lazy bastard living in a suit”, for trying to solve life’s mysteries in his songs instead of simple rolling with God’s plan. In the chorus, Cohen takes the reins back, singing about “going home,” wherever that may be, with total peace of mind and nary a regret.

Elsewhere, Cohen continues his long-running dialog with the fairer sex. “Crazy To Love You” plumbs the depths of a broken relationship with typical eloquence, while “Lullaby” is just what its title claims to be without any of the cloying cuteness it implies. The 77-year old master also wraps his fathoms-deep voice around the blues on “Darkness” and “Different Sides.”

Cohen puts that voice front and center for most of the record, using his old trick of adding heavenly female backing vocals for as stark a contrast as possible. The music is spare, just simple backing with an occasional horn or harmonica here and there for brief interludes. Still, Cohen’s melodic sense, helped by collaborator Patrick Leonard on a few songs, has never been finer.

Another plus here is that Cohen, who has never been the best album artist, has taken care to make sure the album flows better than just a random collection of songs. Or maybe he has just narrowed his focus so much that the album sounds more consistent than many of his recent ones. Whatever the case, it makes for one of the most cohesive discs in his career.

On “Show Me The Place,” Cohen unfurls a lovely gospel-tinged number that goes down as one of the finest efforts in his sterling career. Setting aside his trademark cool, he is penitent before someone, maybe a God, maybe a former lover, as he sings, “Show me the place where the suffering began.” It’s a startling moment of vulnerability, as the narrator, haunted by his mistakes and threatened by his mortality, seeks out some fragment of innocence and grace.

It’s unlikely that his request will be answered, but that just means that he’ll keep questing. Leonard Cohen might think these are Old Ideas, but, when presented by such a gifted songwriter, they’re downright revelatory. 

RATING:  8.5 out of 10